Reader, I Married Him: Living with Christian Unity

20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 

John 17:20-21 (NRSV)

Fifteen years ago, my mother had a premonition that I would meet my future significant other at one of two religious events that summer: the World Gathering of Young Friends, a week-long gathering of young Quakers from around the globe; or an ecumenical conference at Iona Abbey entitled “Breaking Down Dividing Walls in the 21st Century”, which brought together young people from throughout the UK, from different Christian denominations, to talk about our differences and learn from one another in community.

At the same time, in a far away county, another mother had a very similar premonition: that her son would meet his future significant other at one of two religious events that summer: attending the Catholic World Youth Day as a very interested Anglican observer; or attending an ecumenical conference at Iona Abbey entitled “Breaking Down Dividing Walls in the 21st Century”.

As will be of no surprise to anyone who knows either of our mothers, it turns out they were both entirely right, and my future husband and I did indeed meet on that beautiful, far-flung Scottish island, and have been talking about our differences and learning from one another in community ever since. I had never been to Mass. He thought he knew all about silence as worship already. I stood firm in the interpretation of Quaker communities as a priesthood of all believers, and saw Catholics as bringing goddess-worship back into the Christian fold. He believed in the literal and perpetual virginity of Mary, and not in the ordination of women. It was, shall we say, a bumpy ride to learn to listen to one another with love, with respect, with acceptance without agreement. Now, in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I am trying to put into words some of what this process has taught me, some of what I would rather ignore, and some of what I can’t avoid, despite my firmest intentions, because every time I try, it beats me over the head and refuses to give up instead.

Unity takes practise. The order of our social engagements in that rosy, hazy summer struck me much, much later. Both of us arrived in Scotland fueled with the enthusiasm of months of talking about and experiencing our own faith with others – those with similar ways of practising that faith, and those with very different ways of doing it, who still broadly came under the same banner. We had spent time exploring what was significant to us and explaining it to others, across language barriers, cultural expectations, and experiential divides. Our tongues were already in the habit of finding new ways and new words for old and comfortable traditions. Not such a leap, then, to move on to rockier, scarier terrain with those who did not already share that mutual language and tradition.

Conviction without condemnation. In a world of post-truth, and convictions that are made or broken on the back of one throw-away tweet, it is a constant struggle to hold to your own convictions, speak them and share them with others, without inviting or offering condemnation. To be able to say “I think this, and you think that. We utterly disagree, and that’s OK.” To be able to learn from each other, to share cultural understanding and religious heritage, to be able to learn more about your own faith when exploring it through the eyes of others, seeing it for the first time: this is a gift, and a route into deeper understanding. Be warned when taking this route, though. There will be stumbles, false starts, and dead ends way up in the mountains that you find only after days of climbing. You will at times be surrounded by rocks and razor-sharp drops. You will bruise your wrists from swinging, alone and surprised when you thought someone else was securing your rope. You will hurt each other. Sometimes you will hate each other. And all of that is part of a journey to a summit that really is worth every year and belly-deep gasp for breath it took to get there.

Find your balance. Everything needs balance, structure, stability: from see-saws to ecosystems to marriages, they only work if they have both solid foundations and equal amounts of give and take. In my household, it’s all about balance. We have two cats: one is named Fry, as in Elizabeth, a prison reformer strong enough to be put onto a £5 note, and a Quaker; the other named Ambrose, after an equally impressive Saint, who had a habit of speaking truth to power, as well as being patron saint of domestic animals. We go to church one week, Quaker Meeting the next. We go away on church Pilgrimages and on Quaker residential events. The Paleontologist joins the choir; I join Area Meeting trustees. It’s all about balance. And also, maybe, just a bit about general absurdity and the triumph of hope over experience.

Be patient. Be very, very patient. Sometimes things will be very important to another denomination, and no matter how hard you try, it will be nothing more than minutiae to you. Exhibit A: arguing over how improper it is to put Jesus in the crib before Midnight Mass. Exhibit B: a stand-up row involving such jargon as Sufferings, Right Ordering, QPSW and AMs. (I feel like someone should put together a Venn diagram showing who may understand the significance of both those sentences. There’s a part of me that is very afraid the overlap may be rather lonely, though.) Whether you understand it or not; whether you agree with it or it makes your teeth scream on end; you need to dig deep, keep your cool, and, if you’re anything like us, leave the other one to it and go sort out some washing up.

Fifteen years has not been enough to work out how to do all this without hurting each other sometimes. A lifetime may not be enough. Life could have been easier for me if I’d met a nice young Quaker from a similar tradition; or for him if he’d married someone more naturally prepared for the role of Vicar’s Wife. I could have continued unswerving on a path I trod and loved when walking alone. He could have shared his vocation with someone who knows how to behave around bishops and doesn’t leave out some sections of the Creed. It could quite possibly have been easier. But it would have been infinitely less fun. Less like a blindfold rollercoaster with the car attached backwards by mistake. And in the end, it would have left me less aware of myself, and my faith more faltering, more superficial, and far less full of convincement.

A view of Iona Abbey and St Cuthbert's cross, looking out over the sea
Iona Abbey: home of prayer, spirituality and, as it turns out, match-making

Inertia and goal-setting: making life simpler one junk-pile at a time

“I am so angry with myself!”

“I know you are. But instead of getting angry, how about we think about why we were late, again, and try to find a way around it next time?”

“Not listening, not listening. OK, that was just pretending to be The Cowgirl. I am listening really.”

“Well [now speaking through gritted teeth] the problem seems to be that you see we might be late, but instead of doing something about it, you panic, get very stressed, curl up in the Wake-Up Chair facing the wall, and generally continue doing exactly what you were doing before. And that’s why nothing ever changes.”

“Oh. Well. That’s a bit like climate change, then. Everyone knows it’s happening. Everyone talks a lot about it. But no one actually does anything.”

From a girl who showed limited interest at best in the climate catastrophe before, The Paleontologist nailed it this morning. And I would have applauded that, if I hadn’t been driving too fast round the ring road on our way to church, being, as we were, late. As usual.

A couple of days earlier, I was teaching my students about motivation, and we talked (well, mostly I talked) about the difference between goals and dreams. Anyone can dream, and the bigger and wilder and more enticing your imagination is, the more fantabulous your dreams become. But goals? They have a cost. It may be money (nods around the room as they remembered previous discussions about the joys of student loans). It may be sweat and tears (a few were surreptitiously wiping away mascara run-lines at that moment, having just watched a heartbreaking and challenging clip from The Do Something Movement, so that wasn’t about to be argued with). But the hardest cost of all is giving up the things we have worked so hard to achieve: the ideas, the identities, the incentives that gave us the get-up and get-busy when what we’d far rather have done is hide under the duvet. Giving those things up, because they used to keep you moving forwards, a lifeline in the darkness, but are now an anchor once the storm is over, holding you in place when you need to soar free over the next horizon; giving those things up takes the sacrifice of stepping, blind, over the cliff-edge.

A bleak landscape: dark trees on the horizon, and dry and cracked ground. In the foreground is a dust blue boat, and one, bright, red flower.
Image by Ralph Klein from Pixabay

The Paleontologist is right. We talk and stress and panic about what may be around the corner, but we don’t actually do anything. Because doing something means letting go of what we still think is success, and joy, and the sign that life is actually going OK for once. We watch others going on exotic holidays. We save and hope and plan, and finally all our work pays off. Are we really going to turn round and decide not to go now, after so many years of empty longing? How is it fair to ask some to give up something they have never experienced, when others still take it for granted three times a year? And yet, if real change is going to happen, we are going to have to let go of those imaginings, the incentive of owning the best or the brightest or the newest, the idea dreamed up when the world felt younger and the future was not full of floods and wildfires.

Over the next few months, I am going to spend some time looking back over my self-set #Challenge2019 ambitions. This is partly because I was asked for an update, and mostly because I am both a perfectionist and a masochist, and do so love going over things I have done before, scrabbling around in the dusty neglected corners, reopening the cracks in the name of learning from my mistakes. I’m also going to look at them again because there were some pretty good actions in there, and I would like to continue them this year.

So, let’s begin. #ChallengeJanuary: to not buy anything that wasn’t essential, for the duration of the month. This was the challenge that most altered my behaviour during #Challenge2019: the act of consciously trying to reduce the amount I bought for a month had a lasting effect on the habits I took forward through the rest of the year. Probably the most significant change was my returning (in excited puppy who can’t wait to destroy a cherished item of clothing mode) to the guilt-free utopia that is the world of used items on eBay. Knee high boots, a Fitbit, new cards for Trivial Pursuit – it turns out you really can get just about anything that way, leading to less of an environmental impact, less internalised despair over going up another clothes size, and less screaming in frustration next Christmas when my mother-in-law is the only one who can remember any trivia from long enough ago to answer any of the damn questions.*

Setting goals means being Specific, Realistic, Achievable, Time-limited; much like my teaching nemisis, the omnipresent SMART target. (Always Achievable, interestingly, never Ambitious; an oversight and both a blessing and a curse.) This year, I will return to #ChallengeJanuary with this in mind. Being Specific means sharpening up the idea from just saying that I will avoid buying anything new – that isn’t sustainable in the long term, leading as it does to guilt trips over unplanned treats and agonising over new school tights. I have changed it to taking the goal of simplifying our household by the horns, wading unflinchingly in the midden that is the girls’ bedroom, and re-gifting or re-purposing all the things they no longer fit into or use. As a rough guide, I would like to remove two things for every one that gets added to their delightfully decorated black hole. Ultimately, they will have space to store things they still enjoy in the currently-overflowing cupboard-tops in their room. Is that Achievable? That remains to be seen. It is unquestionably Ambitious. And how to make it Time-limited? Saying I’ll have it done by the end of January is about as realistic as saying I’ll have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro by June (says me, the lady who generally finds perfectly reasonable excuses to avoid walking up 3 flights of stairs to the staffroom every morning). My honest goal is to achieve this by the beginning of the summer, learning as I go.

Changing everything that makes us who we are and tells us how to value one another is, as it turns out, something that is quite a big ask. It’s OK to be scared by that. We’re all scared by the unknown. We’re quite often scared by the known just as easily. But we don’t have the option of freezing, or hiding our faces in the cushions of the Wake-Up Chair until Mum or Dad comes in telling us how to fix the problems we have helped to create. We need to break it down and just take the next logical step. Get up and go through the airing cupboard to find clean school uniform; dig through the mess of Lego and ink stamps to find an unsnapped hairband; commit to borrowing all our books from the Library, or giving up meat for one meal a day, or to stop equating someone’s core nature and identity with their economic status, refusing the trap of judgements based entirely on what form of employment they perform. We need to take that step. And then the next one. And the next. And trust that Bilbo Baggins is as reliable a source of wisdom and insight as ever, and that it truly is a dangerous thing to take that step into the unknown: you never know where you may be able to end up.

The sun is rising in the background. A faint mist hovers over the road that leads from the foreground into the distance. Trees stand beside the road. Five hot air balloons float through the morning air.
Image by Cindy Lever from Pixabay

*Am I the only one with a family tradition of playing Trivial Pursuit on Christmas Day? Please tell me someone else shares this pain. We start at 10 and it’s all going well, but before you know it, it’s 1 in the morning, no one has more than 3 cheeses, and if we get any more questions suggesting Tony Blair should be in the history category we will all go into collective meltdown.

New year, same world: a million marvellous shades of grey

New Year’s Day is at once mystical and terribly ordinary. It symbolises the endless possibilities of fresh starts and new horizons, stretching before us like an ocean of snow that no one has yet jumped through, or pinched all the deepest drifts of for their own snow sculptures. At exactly the same time, it is an ordinary, boring day, full of hungover, sleep deprived adults and children who have reached the end of their secret stashes of chocolate and are suffering their first sugar low for two weeks. Every year, I tell myself I won’t buy into the general hyperbole and hype of NYE. Every year, I am lying to myself.

I love New Year. I enter fully into the principle of fresh starts, New Me initiatives, plans and schemes to sort out the things that have been bugging me about myself since September. They usually start well, not least because I have been saving them up and planning for them, putting off doing anything about them until we have Survived Christmas, since about the middle of November. But, let’s face it, they do always peeter out (Exhibit A: my #Challenge2019). That too is a part of this season.

There is something definitely both backwards and forwards facing, Janus in January (hey, could that be deliberate?) about this time of year, a thinness and honesty that can creep through the mugginess and unexpected nothingness of the weather and the atmosphere around today. We look back at what was different this time last year, or, in decades with a 0 at the end, at what we were doing this time a decade ago. And we prove that, once again, the French were onto something with the idea that the more things change, the more they stay the same:

  • Family life has to have seen both the most and the least changes over the last decade. I now have two children instead of none (hooray!) and, as of last week, one cat instead of two (sob). I have the same husband, who I love in whole new ways. We have developed and strengthened how we listen to and support each other, and aggravate each other in all the same old ways.
  • Church life was in a village church I only fully appreciated when we moved away (so typical). We have moved on from the church we moved on to, moved on and into a new new Quaker community too. We are established and have even pencilled our way onto the tea rota. Those shoots and roots that come only from a worshipping community are deepening, slowly, painfully sometimes, gaining nutrients from the darkness and the dampness of being unobserved.
  • Politics ten years ago was infinitely different. We had a government no one liked, an NHS no one thought would see out the decade, and people on the far right and the far left both had megaphones and visions that had no recognition within the mainstream. Oh, wait…

So the mystical nature of New Year encourages us to look back and marvel at the things we have done, the things we have created and sustained and quit, the things that have changed us and hardened us and tempered us. And shimmering, mirage-like through the mysticism, is that same pile of dirty washing up you didn’t quite get around to yesterday; the same reading from the scales (if you’re lucky); the same unfinished to do lists and unmarked assignments (speaking for a friend, naturally). And, at your core, under the resolutions, the intentions and the incomplete Forth Bridge nature of the household chores, is the same person. Same hopes. Same inconsistencies. Same drive and same stumbling blocks. And that is a good thing.

It’s a good thing because the times that have gone past are entirely necessary to the stories of our lives. The mistakes and almost-misses are frequently the bases of our favourite stories, the ones that get told year after year until they have a life of their own and are part of our shared community. (My personal favourite is a story from my wedding day, involving a mysteriously missing taxi, replaced with a decrepit old Nissan Micra, uncomfortably squished full of my hooped wedding dress – with a train, elvish sleeves, and a cape, because if you can’t dress like that on your wedding day, when can you? My husband assures me it could not have happened as I tell it; but I point to the number of people over the years who have heard it, laughed at it, retold it. If that doesn’t make it part of the story of that day, what would?)

The stories I tell and the actions I take are so often stark, with crystal-sharp outlines, black and white. My job is incredible, or it’s killing me. Dieting is awesome or the work of the devil. My children give me life or drain their energy directly from my soul. But life isn’t really like that, is it? It can be a rainy day with an afternoon of laughter and board games and baking and petty arguments and everything else that makes up the best, most forgettable, parts of family life. Depression isn’t limited to the winter. It is, I’m told, possible to eat a chocolate digestive and not write off the whole day as a breakdown in healthy living. So that is my challenge to myself for 2020: to look beyond black and white, and see the glorious technicolour embodied within a million shades of grey.

Clouds shadow a face - an angel, a goddess, an inanimate stone figure? - who gazes beyond the middle distance. Behind her, a clock spirals into oblivion.